In Mexico, An Activist Says Her Farewells

For more than a decade, Norma Andrade has been working to defend Mexico’s women from violence. Now she’s decided to get out.

Larry Kaplow
Larry Kaplow

Eleven years ago, Norma Andrade’s teenage daughter was kidnapped and killed in the border city of Juárez, Mexico, near the factory where she worked. Andrade says Lilia Alejandra’s body was found in a vacant tract where a Costco and Home Depot have since been built, signposts of the city’s industrial boom. Norma Andrade, who herself assembled televisions and computers for 17 years before becoming an elementary school teacher, tried in vain to get police to prosecute her daughter’s killers and eventually became a prominent activist against femicide (the killing of women).

She’s been roughed up by guards for local officials, received countless threats, and seen her colleagues injured, killed, or chased into asylum to the north. Her truck-driver husband died of cancer. Then, in December, she survived five gunshot wounds. This month she was slashed in the face. In what seems like an ominous verdict for Mexico, this scrappy woman now says she cannot safely return to her hometown. She’s even considering leaving her country altogether.

The 51-year-old Andrade met with me in a Mexico City restaurant last week. A small bandage on her right cheek covered the knife wound from 10 days before. Her right hand was packed in a soft velcro cast, which she removed to show the scar from a bullet, and her left arm, partially paralyzed, was wrapped in a black sling. Her grandson, whom she adopted along with his sister after Lilia Alejandra’s death, sat at another table with two bodyguards provided by the government of Mexico City, where Andrade is undergoing physical therapy. She’s considering an offer of refuge in Spain, or might seek one in the United States. The thought of it suddenly fills her eyes with tears. "To have to leave my city, a whole life, like I’m a criminal, when I am not one…." she says, her voice trailing off. "But in reality, yes, I’m afraid."

The plight of activists like Andrade raises questions about Mexico’s nascent democracy, bedeviled as it is by deepening violence. To be sure, not all the news is bad. The last decade has witnessed dramatic growth in Mexico’s civil society. Newspapers rip into politicians daily, and there are countless groups watch-dogging transparency and corruption.

But activists say that the last year has been perilous. It’s hard to confirm if it’s worse than in the country’s violent recent past, but a recent report by the National Center for Social Communication (CENCOS), an advocacy group, cited a "deterioration" in conditions and "evident ineffectiveness of institutions to impart justice." Their report counted 69 threats and attacks against activists. That appeared to be up from the 32 the group counted from April to December, 2010, when it started keeping track. The list includes 31 murders, up from just three in the period from April to December in 2010. Some activists simply disappeared. Drug gangs took credit for killing four people they accused of using social networks to inform on their activities. The Committee to Protect Journalists counted three reporters killed for reasons related to their work and four others killed out of unclear motives.

Juárez, a city of 1.3 million people across the narrow Rio Grande river from El Paso, Texas, has been the crucible of Mexico’s lawlessness. A year ago, Human Rights Watch documented incidents of violence against activists in Chihuahua state, of which Juárez is a part. The organization singled out attacks on members of the grassroots organization Andrade co-founded (known as "May Our Daughters Return Home"). The report noted that arsonists set fire to the house belonging to Andrade’s surviving daughter, who works with her group. This all comes as Mexico’s military-led offensive against drug cartels enters its sixth year, ratcheting up the violence in a country already soaked in blood. One side effect: a growing number of complaints against the security forces themselves for killings, disappearances, and unjustified detentions.

Juárez became infamous in the late 1990s for the killing of women. Hundreds of young woman, many of them workers in the maquiladora factories that assemble goods for U.S. markets, started turning up dead. Numbers vary, but Andrade’s group cites some 1,326 femicides since the early 1990s, though acknowledging that some of the more recent victims may have been simply caught up in the wave of gang violence. Women make up a fraction of the overall murders in Mexico, with perhaps 10 or 15 times as many men killed. But activists and academics say there are specific reasons why women so often become targets, including less official interest in prosecuting women’s murderers.

Multiple theories swirl over the Juárez killings. Andrade said details of her daughter Lilia’s murder, who was 17 at the time, resemble more than 180 others studied that showed signs of sexual abuse and torture. People speculate about a "snuff" film industry, human trafficking, and ritualistic gang initiations. In Andrade’s case, she found out that someone had seen Lilia, disheveled and semi-nude, trying to escape from men in a car days after her kidnapping. Police were called but didn’t arrive for two hours. Andrade believes she knows who killed her daughter and, though she won’t identify them publicly, says she gave the information to the authorities years ago.

Andrade is careful not to speculate about why officials were so lax in their response. "Whoever is stealing our children, we don’t know," she says carefully. "But the government permits it." She doubts whether it is all due to simple ignorance by police. She notes that U.S. experts have been training Mexican security forces for years. And the police often do make arrests in domestic violence cases in which the murderer is related to the victim. But Karla Micheel Salas, lawyer for Andrade’s group, says that the few arrests in other cases, particularly when the victim is abducted by strangers, frequently appear to be shams or frame-ups. President Felipe Calderón maintains that his government is now taking unprecedented steps to vet and train new police, as well as regularly purging corrupt ones. But strong ties still exist between police and criminal gangs.

Deborah Weissman, a University of North Carolina law professor who has studied the murders of women in Juárez, says you can’t just look at police methods. She stresses the economic and social upheaval that has torn away at the social fabric in Juárez over the past two decades. Long a getaway for U.S. honeymooners and tourists, Juárez became a factory center for products exported to the U.S., characterized by low wages and crowded living and working conditions. The population grew by some 50 percent in the 1990s alone. Andrade notes that most of the factory workers are women, a status that gives them money and power but has also deeply unsettled many of the community’s tradition-bound men. Without a reliable safety net, it also meant that children were often left alone, prompting many of them to become foot soldiers in the drug-related mayhem that now overshadows the assaults on women. Andrade points out that most of the girls missing from Juárez since 2008 have never been found, leading her to believe they’re being trafficked.

Mexico’s democratic transition can’t be ignored either. It was a positive development in 2000 when the hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party lost power for the first time in 71 years. But analysts say it may have also contributed to the explosion of crime by shaking up and dispersing the existing power structure. Andrade, for her part, sees democracy as a "smokescreen" that the powerful use to cover their old corrupt practices.

Andrade was walking to her car with her 12-old granddaughter on Dec. 2 when a man approached on foot, brandishing a pistol. She offered her purse and keys to the assailant, but he immediately opened fire from close range, hitting her in the hand, the chest, and the shoulder (three times), before fleeing without a word. Two weeks later state officials paid for her to fly to Mexico City for her own safety. On Feb. 3, a man approached from behind with a knife as she was about to enter her temporary home. As she tried to fight him off, he slashed her face and neck before fleeing. It was then that the city started providing her with guards. Both attackers are still at large. She says she doesn’t know who’s behind the attacks, wondering whether it could be related to her groups work on a human trafficking case last year. Amnesty International has called for her protection.

Andrade’s worries now are practical. Over the years she’s gotten degrees in teaching and law, but her poor English reduces her chances of finding a job in the United States. She wants to make sure she gets the social security due her for years of work in Mexico. And she wonders how her grandchildren would adjust to a move.

As for "May Our Daughters Return Home," Andrade firmly believes that her organization can carry on without her. It has, after all, continued its workshops to educate and support bereaved families even when other leaders were run out of town. And she’s determined to stay involved from afar. But it’s clearly a bad omen for her country when someone like Andrade feels that she has no choice but to flee. If activists are the canaries in the coal mine of Mexico’s young democracy, the oxygen seems to be thinning.

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